This post will identify stressors specific to those on the autism spectrum and pathways toward more calm during unsettling times.
How COVID-19 Specifically Impacts Those on the Autism Spectrum
Individuals on the spectrum lean toward two things: anxiety and repetition.
One of the diagnostic characteristics of autism is difficulty with uncertainty and change. The thought process for the autistic leans toward categories: good versus bad, compelling versus boring, right versus wrong. Trouble thinking with complexity (e.g., how something can occur with complexity rather than all bad or all good) can add to dire and anxious thoughts during uncertain times.
A second of the diagnostic characteristics in autism is repetition. The autistic is more likely than others to get stuck on a thought or idea. He may "obsess" with a topic and have difficulty "letting it go." She may research a subject online for 8 hours straight, being unable to shift.
This combination can lead to obsessive anxiety about topics like COVID-19. This fixation is similar to when we can't look away from a car accident. It is horrible and compelling at the same time. For the autistic, this phenomenon may be even more intense and lead to a mental health crisis.
What the autistic can do to cope during uncertain times
1. Defined Space for Worry
One helpful strategy can be to schedule times for research and worry. This approach combines the autistic's preference for predictability and allows some space for concern. One example may look like scheduling 30 minutes in the morning, midday, and evening for worry time. Researching or journaling about the topic and anxiety may take place during this time. When thoughts of worry surface during the rest of the day, the individual can reassure themselves. "I can worry about this. But not until 11:30." Trying not to worry at all is often like chasing your tail: impossible and exhausting. Some definition on worry time let's it have space without taking over the entire day.
2. Sensory Inputs
Trying to contain anxious thoughts is often not enough.
Sensory inputs add a layer of calm that intellectual coping cannot. Calming sensory strategies may include a weighted blanket, essential oils, massage, a warm bath, yoga, running, listening to music, or eating crunchy foods (using senses of proprioception, smell, vestibular, and auditory) to name a few.
Special attention toward helping the autistic during the COVID-19 crisis can prevent decompensation due to anxiety and resulting need for hospital visits.